Cardboard Children – The Unopened Box

Oh what potential there is in the unopened box. For my birthday last week (37 years old! Am I the oldest person on Rock Paper Shotgun? Oh my goodness. Maybe.) my girlfriend ordered me an indie board game called CAVE EVIL. It was pretty expensive, but it’s a real home-made thing, a unique and beautiful thing. It sits unopened, in an unopened box. When I’ve played it I’ll be sure to tell you about it, but at the moment it sits unopened inside an unopened box.

An unopened box. Can I explain to you why an unopened box excites me so much? Please read on.


It’s really weird to review board games. You’re pretty much reviewing an experience, and not everyone experiences an experience in the same way. Let’s take Monopoly, for example. Monopoly is, in my opinion, a fine board game. I like what it’s about and I like how it plays. Played with the proper rules, it never outstays its welcome, and it is VICIOUS. But I think that a lot of how I feel about Monopoly comes from the experiences I’ve had with the people I’ve played with.

If you play a game with a bunch of downers, that game will be a downer.

That fact alone makes reviewing games a weird thing. Computer games are different. They are, on the whole, solitary experiences. Board games need people, and people with a good sense of play. It’s just not a simple or straight-forward thing.

So, when you look at an unopened box, you have to understand that the potential inside is not really unlimited. It is limited by the people you will play with. If you want to really enjoy a board game, you need to really enjoy people. And you need to have the right people.

So what is the unopened box, really?

CAVE EVIL sits there, unopened. It exists, for now, as an idea of how the experience might be. I’ve read the reviews and designer interviews. I’ve watched the promo video.

It is an idea, that’s all. I have an idea of how it’ll play, and how we’ll all laugh as we play it. I can form the shape of the experience in my head. CAVE EVIL itself is only part of it. Part of the idea inside the box is a room in my house. My friends make up big, important parts of the idea. Vodka is in the idea too. I like vodka. I’ll probably be drinking vodka when I play CAVE EVIL. It’s all inside the box, waiting to come out.

I love ideas. My day job is all about ideas. That’s why I love board games.

See, once the box is opened, there’s another box inside. The box inside is the game itself. The game, and all its mechanics. Some of the best games are unwrapped and unfolded over time, over multiple plays. It can take a lot of time to reach all the way inside the box and actually grab hold of something. We said the unopened box is an idea, right? What about the open box, then?

This is what makes board games special. A box, with an idea inside. That idea, once encountered, full of other ideas. Innovations and mechanics, all coloured by personal experience.

My love of board games is important to me, as a creative person. Let me explain why.

This notion is key to my creative process. I first encountered it written so plainly in Stephen King’s brilliant “On Writing”. Once you know what your thing is about, ask yourself what it’s actually about. I’m writing my second feature film at the moment, and I’m constantly asking myself what I’m writing about. And then I ask what I’m actually writing about. I try to keep all of that clear, at every step. My first feature film was about a typical masked slasher-film serial killer and his final victim, but it was actually about misogyny and domestic abuse. There were boxes inside the big box, all of them unopened until the time was right.

Board games excite me on a creative level, because they operate on the same principles. Look at Mall of Horror. It’s a board game about zombies, but it’s actually about diplomacy and trust. It contains little ideas (rolling hidden dice you can peek at, vital information that is only yours) that support what the game is actually about. That’s beautiful, and brilliant.


This image of the unopened box with all the unopened boxes inside is key to the design of board games too, I think. I’ve been trying to design board games for years now. I’ve played about with a few ideas, scrapped them, re-visited them – but the process is always this…

THE UNOPENED BOX – The idea of your game as an experience. I’m working on a game called, at the moment, THE EVIL BESIDE ME. It’s a horror game, with a crude video nasty feel. I have an idea of it being funny and vicious and borderline offensive. I can visualise how it looks on the table, and the kind of people who are sitting there playing it. I can see the intended audience, I can see them enjoying it, and I can see why they’re enjoying it.

Now, let’s open the box.

THE OPEN BOX – This is where you have to support your big idea, the experiential side of your idea, with all the cool little unopened boxes that make games amazing. This is, in truth, the difficult part. I have one idea that I think is really strong, a mechanic I’ve never encountered before. If I get it right, then this will be a little box that gamers can unpack and play around with for quite some time. An idea within the big idea. A hook within the hook. And I think it supports what the game is actually about.

Whenever I tell people I love board games, I think they often put it down to the “game” side of things. “That guy likes to play games”. That’s fine. I do like to play games. But all those ideas are what I find so addictive. I like opening all those boxes.


I’ve finally got to grips with Kaosball. Can it compete with Blood Bowl? (It’s nothing like Blood Bowl.)


  1. noom says:

    I very very nearly bought Cave Evil yesterday. The theme is just so unique (amongst board games at least) that it stands out a mile. That is it reportedly quite a Good Game helps too. Just can’t quite convince myself to part with a hundred-odd simoleans just for a slightly quirky design though. Do let us know if you think it was worth the cost to import it.

  2. WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

    The box, the box!!!

    (Please tell me someone still watches classic Simpsons?)

  3. Gap Gen says:

    OK so CAVE EVIL makes a lot more sense than what I originally read, which was CAKE EVIL.

  4. Rise / Run says:

    I enjoyed the little treatise.

    Thoughts unrelated to your thesis that came to me while reading:

    Firstly (having seen only the conceptual box), this Morphine song is the first thing I thought of: link to

    Second (after having seen an image of the real box), wow that is some black metal infused board game box (and that is not a bad thing, for sure). I think you should be drinking akvavit instead of vodka while playing that, Rab. And perhaps wearing corpse paint.

  5. merbert says:

    Rab, can’t tell you how much I appreciate and enjoy your articles.

    From board games (and you’ve got me hooked, ye bastid!) to Rik Mayel homages to cardboard boxes.

    That’s a real craft you’ve developed there.

    Well done.

  6. Weed says:

    47 yrs old and married for 24. Dear game gods, I think I have been married longer than most RPS readers have been alive.

    I liked the article, but I am just not that creative. I think my creativity all leaked out years ago. (The box got soggy)

    • Arglebargle says:

      I’m flirting with sixty. When I was a teenager, one of my friends was an Avalon Hill games tester. We’d spread out gigantic maps of the Eastern Front and invade back and forth after school. His dad, an Army captain, thought it was just great!

      Was playing a PBM RP game when D&D was released. Picked that up quickly as it was reccomended in game. And so it began…

      I can flat out play the old fart card, though I bet there’s some here who can outdo me, especially on the computer front.

  7. stoner says:

    An unopened box is full of infinite possibilities May I introduce you to Schroedinger’s Cat?

    • phlebas says:

      Cave Evil is both brilliant and terrible until Rab opens the box.

  8. BooleanBob says:

    Tomorrow’s recipe: chicken!

  9. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    Spent the past week playing some Relic on the recommendation of this very website and thoroughly enjoyed it, and it sounds like a weekend of Sparticus and Arkham Horror is coming up, so ta Rab :)

  10. Diziet Sma says:

    I’ve been on a game a day kick for a while now (must play one new game each day of any kind for at least 30 minutes). Having spent quite a while buying board/card games but not playing them my sole remaining “Unopened Box” is a copy of Starcraft: The Board Game that I found still in cellophane wrapping in a charity shop 6 odd years ago no less. The current opened but not yet played is Citadel, the just opened and played today is Firefly The Board Game. On the horizon but not yet bought I noticed a local Waterstone’s has Arkham Horror in stock + one expansion.

    I post this to say thank you, the enthusiasm from your articles has been infectious and got me past the “but I’ve got no one to play them with” to actively trying them out and encouraging others to join in.

  11. tanstaafl says:

    37? Bah. I have 20 years on you. Age is just a number.

    There’s a quote I can’t remember the source of: “We don’t quit playing because we grow old. We grow old because we quit playing.”

    Never stop playing.

  12. Gog Magog says:

    For a box to be mine I cannot permit it remaining unopened ; therein would be a mystery beyond my dispensation and I could claim no ownership of it.
    Yaddee yadda. Doth mother know thou weareth her drapes.

    In all seriousness an idea created (tailored? built? authored? stir-fried?) by yourself truly is unlike an unopened box, I think, because you have awareness of what it contains beyond simple expectation (expectation being eg. the box should contain this new game I have yet to play). You also have direct control of it. And it also contains some reflection of yourself. None of those things I could liken to some unknown but rather tangible space in some unknown but rather tangible box.
    Gods help me I am complaining about not agreeing with metaphors now.
    Should get some sleep.

  13. Judy says:

    I have this issue with Fiasco. 3 hour roleplaying game for 4 people. It “works” with 3 or 5 people, but was clearly designed for 4. And I’m having so much difficulty getting just 3 other people to come over. I’ve been trying so hard, with so many cancelations, I’m wondering if the game is worth it…

  14. JackMultiple says:

    Ah, The Unopened Box. I remember the first time I encountered TUB.

    It was back in the early 90s. I’d just purchased Falcon 3.0 in the big (heavy!) silver box from my local Electronics Boutique, and I gingerly placed it on the passenger seat beside me on the drive home. I didn’t want to open it! As long as I didn’t open it, the game inside might be “the most perfect and exciting game ever!” Why, it might stagger the imagination how good it might be! As long as I didn’t open the box, I could “know” that I would never need to own another flight simulator. I have Falcon 3.0 in a box! What more could I want?

    Ever since that day, when I bought a new game and brought it home from the store, I think EXACTLY the same thoughts. This new game, whatever it is… as long as I don’t open the box and play it… might be the best game I ever played! Of course, I always open the box, and my euphoria is more than sufficiently dashed.

    Once you open the box, you can never recapture that feeling. Yes it might be a pretty dang good game. But it’ll never be “the best game ever” again. No (opened) game ever has.

  15. cF- says:

    Cave Evil looks so beautifully kvlt.

  16. NonCavemanDan says:

    Plus, when you do finally open it, it makes that slight farting noise as the lid slides off the base.

  17. Detournemented says:

    If one were interested in more of Nathans (designer of Cave Evil) work check this out:

    link to

  18. Foosnark says:

    CAVE EVIL, when presented in all caps like that, looks like the NSA code name for a program that monitors comic book purchases in an attempt to spot potential terrorists. Or something.

  19. Siinji says:

    I played Cave Evil a couple of times. An absolutely awesome game. I would also think, that it’s Florence’s type of game and, as he is suggesting in this article, very dependant upon whom you’re playing.

    I’ve played it with three players. I would describe it as putting 3 angry and scared cats in a box. Let them hiss at each other for 2 hours before two of them attack while the third watches and waits for his oppurtunity to strike…. then suddenly Satan himself rips the box apart, and all hell breaks loose!